WASHINGTON — This weekend's huge protest in Los Angeles against a proposed immigration crackdown was a metaphor for the sprawling problem facing President Bush: Though he has helped ignite the first significant debate over federal immigration policy in decades, he now is struggling to retain control of an issue that has provoked vitriol nationwide.
Many House Republicans are fighting Bush's signature initiative to set up a guest-worker program that would allow some undocumented workers to remain and work in the United States for a specified period of time -- and they are even more enraged by the bill approved Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would treat illegal immigrants even more liberally. That clash of ideas has set a combative tone that threatens to drown out Bush's more temperate message.
Now the political question is which approach will define the Republican Party in the minds of swing Latino voters -- especially in battleground states with many immigrants, including New Mexico, Arizona and Florida.
The risk for Bush is that Congress' election-year immigration debate, which is coming to a head this week in the Senate, will undercut his efforts to attract more Latino voters to the Republican Party. Those efforts bore considerable fruit in the 2004 elections: According to Los Angeles Times exit polls, Bush picked up 45% of the Latino vote -- a gain of 7 percentage points from 2000. The gains were so marked that, after the election, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote to fellow Democrats warning of GOP inroads in their community.
But now, some Republicans worry that those gains will be eroded if the party as a whole is associated with strident opponents of illegal immigration, such as Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), just as California Republicans suffered in the mid-1990s because of Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed crackdown on immigration.
"Anti-immigration rhetoric is a political siren song, and Republicans must resist its lure by lashing ourselves to our party's twin masts of freedom and growth, or our majority will crash on its shoals," former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said last week in a speech to the conservative Federalist Society.
"The Republican majority already rests too heavily on white voters," he said, arguing that Bush would not have won reelection in 2004 without the increased support of minority voters.
Implicitly acknowledging the political risk of a divisive debate, Bush last week warned Congress to conduct its debate in a "civil way."
"It must be done in a way that brings dignity to the process," he said. "It must be done in a way that doesn't pit one group of people against another."
As governor of Texas, Bush was a moderate voice on immigration issues, and he was supported by almost half the state's Latino voters in his 1998 reelection campaign.
As president, Bush helped thrust the issue onto Congress' agenda in early 2004, when he proposed letting workers from abroad, as well as some of the 11 million illegal immigrants already here, legally take jobs as temporary workers. That provoked the ire of some of the president's most ardent conservative supporters, who saw a guest-worker plan as equivalent to granting amnesty to lawbreakers. At the same time, Bush's plan was criticized by immigration advocates for not offering a path to citizenship.
For months, the issue languished in Congress with little pressure for action from the White House. But in late 2005, House and Senate GOP leaders came under growing political pressure from voters -- especially among the elderly -- enraged by the growth of illegal immigration. GOP leaders planned action on border security legislation, but summarily dropped the guest-worker program Bush said was crucial to dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country.
The House passed a tough bill, sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), that focused on enforcement. It would make it a felony to immigrate illegally or help someone who has, and called for construction of a 700-mile security fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) argues that Bush lost influence over the immigration debate in the House because he did not do more to push his own proposal.
"If he had really pushed his shoulder into this, we would have had a more comprehensive discussion and a more civil debate," Becerra said.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a likely candidate for president in 2008, also threw his weight behind a bill that did not include a guest-worker program and was ready to bring it to the floor if the Senate Judiciary Committee failed to agree on legislation.
The full Senate may begin debate this week on the committee bill, which contains provisions enabling those here illegally to seek U.S. citizenship without first having to leave the country. It also contains no criminal penalties for being here illegally or for helping those who are.